The Asian tsunami of December 2004 was one of the most devastating natural disasters ever, claiming more than 228,000 lives. When tragedies like this strike, accurate information can be the difference between life and death. Dr. Eddie Bernard has led the creation of a new tsunami detection and forecast system that has dramatically increased forecast accuracy and decreased the risk of catastrophic loss of life.
Over the past 38 years, Dr. Bernard has led groundbreaking research on tsunamis in the United States — mostly in our federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — but never has his knowledge been in such demand. “The problem has always been that the existing technology only provided a forecast of when a tsunami would arrive at a coastline, not the intensity or duration of the tsunami once it arrived,” said Dr. Bernard, who runs the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington.
When a tsunami occurs, the first information available about the source of the tsunami is based only on the available seismic information about the earthquake. Typically, this information is insufficient to determine if a tsunami was formed or how destructive it may be to U.S. coastlines. Dr. Bernard led the development of DART, or Deep Ocean Assessment of Tsunamis, a deep-ocean tsunami detection system that can provide essential data for assimilation into models for accurate tsunami forecasts.
As the tsunami moves across the ocean and successively reaches the DART systems, these systems report sea level information back to the Tsunami Warning Centers, where the information is processed to produce a new and more refined estimate of the tsunami source. The result is an increasingly accurate forecast of the tsunami at U.S. warning points that can be used to issue watches, warnings or evacuations.
This may sound like an obvious solution, but developing the technology for a buoy that can sense what, in the open ocean, amounts to a small (less than ½ inch) sea change, is actually quite difficult and took years to perfect. When developing DART, Dr. Bernard and his fellow researchers hoped for 60 percent forecast accuracy. Today, they are pleased to report that the system has achieved over 90 percent forecast accuracy for the eight experimental forecasts in the Pacific Ocean since 2003.
This technology is not just making Americans safer. Using the NOAA-patented DART technology, a private U.S. company has sold tsunami detectors to Chile and Australia, with an expectation that many more coastal countries will follow suit.
Developing accurate tsunami forecasts is far from Dr. Bernard’s only accomplishment. He has made it a point to reach out to American communities that would benefit most from his research. Dr. Bernard led a state/federal partnership to mitigate the impact of the next tsunami on U.S. coastlines. Initially, the five Pacific states joined NOAA, FEMA and the U.S. Geological Survey to develop a tsunami safety program that used input from coastal communities. By 2003, all five states adopted the recommendations for tsunami safety, including standard highway signs guiding tsunami evacuation, regular evacuation drills and basic K-12 education programs.
In 2006, Congress passed the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, which aims “to authorize and strengthen the tsunami detection, forecast, warning and mitigation program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.” Dr. Bernard traveled back and forth from his lab in Seattle to Washington, D.C., to help draft the legislation and make sure it was written in a way that would most benefit the safety of the United States.
We can never prevent tsunamis from happening. But Dr. Eddie Bernard has made great strides toward ensuring that the human devastation of the 2004 tsunami will not be repeated in the United States.